Jerry Franklin photo##A seral community at HJ Andrews Experimental Forest exemplifies the natural regrowth of forests.
Jerry Franklin photo##A seral community at HJ Andrews Experimental Forest exemplifies the natural regrowth of forests.
By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Logging 101: Professor talks 'ecological forestry' with city club

For decades, Johnson has worked toward creating a sound strategy. He helped develop the Northwest Forest Plan signed into law by President Clinton, via executive order, in 1994, and has spent his career seeking solutions to main goals of forest planning: providing timber harvests for the economic benefit of local communities, and protecting the species that call them home.

He and colleague Jerry F. Franklin, Ph.D., professor of ecosystem science at the University of Washington, believe they have come up with one; a concept they call ecological forestry.

The basic idea is to log forests in a way that simulates natural disasters. That is, instead of simply clear-cutting an entire massive section of forest, on the one hand, or thinning a massive plantation of identical Douglas fir trees on the other, take a middle approach.

That, Johnson said, means clear-cutting some relatively small patches in a given site, and thinning others, leaving about 30 to 40 percent of the trees standing. Some would be in dense stands, or providing stream buffers; others would be individual trees dotted about the site – more similar to the way it might look if a wildfire had killed off many, but not all of the trees, he said.

Then, rather than intensively replanting a single species – Douglas fir – and using herbicides to keep all other vegetation at bay, as is typically done now, the site would be allowed to re-establish itself naturally. Seeds would be provided by the trees left standing.

“That's how the forests got here,” Johnson said.

The process would take longer, but the result, Johnson said, would be healthier, more biologically diverse and resilient forests.

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Forests consist of much more than just trees, Johnson noted, and they don't grow like agricultural crops, with new trees simply springing up in place of the old ones. But that's how they are currently planted and managed.

Rather, he said, they go through successions. Shrubs, grasses, small fruit and nut trees and other sun-loving plants sprout in the open areas left between large, older trees, and for some years, they dominate the area.

Johnson noted to the News-Register that American Indians relied on those early-succession sites for much of their food and fiber sources.

“It's an incredibly bio-diverse stage,” he said, providing an abundance of nuts, berries and otherwise edible harvests.

“Probably the best example is on the Grand Ronde reservation,” he said. “They don't use herbicides.”

As new young conifers sprout and grow, however, they eventually shade out many of the sun-loving plants. At that point, the young forest becomes more dominated by understory, shade and partial-shade tolerant species, that may in their turn be replaced, as the trees continue to grow. As the plant species alter with the changing circumstances, so do the animals living there. Some few hundred years may pass before the site matures into the kind of old-growth forests that are revered today.

Because nature is filled with natural disasters, there are always forests and sections of forests in different succession stages, providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals.

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Johnson and Franklin aren't proposing that the government wait hundreds of years between logging cycles, but they are proposing long cycles. They also recommend smaller harvests.

But stakeholders on opposite sides of discussion do not like the the middle-ground approach. Two bills in Congress that attempted to implement some version of it have failed.

Nonetheless, Johnson said, the Bureau of Land Management is now testing the concept, to the dismay of some environmentalists, who object to plans to test it out in stands of 100-year-old trees.

“There's a major flashpoint in the debate as to whether we should do this type of harvesting in mature stands,” he said.

For the past several decades, Johnson said, the logging industry has focused on sites that allow them to skip over that natural succession, “so it can concentrate all the energy on growing trees.”

That, however, assumes the only value is in the timber to be harvested, and it has led to problems, Johnson said.

“It's not the best thing ecologically,” he said. “It might be economically, but not ecologically.”

Furthermore, he said, it has also led to situations that threaten the economic benefits.

“The fact that in the Northwest our industry is dependent on very few species means it's inherently vulnerable to imported pests,” he said, such as Swiss Needle Cast, that is now infecting Douglas fir trees on the coast.

By contrast, “this is a much more robust environment that we're talking about,” he said.

A complicating factor, Johnson said, is that Pacific Northwest forests are not all the same. He and Franklin divide them into moist forests, found primarily north of Eugene, and dry forests, found in southern Oregon. They have different characteristics, and need to be managed differently, Johnson said.

Particularly in Southern Oregon, “The forests are unstable,” he told the City Club. “Expect more drought and wildfire. We argue strongly that we need to thin them out, or we're going to lose the forests themselves altogether. But anywhere there are commercial stands, there are spotted owls. So you have a direct conflict.”

Johnson also discussed the concerns involved with trying to protect northern spotted owls, an endangered species that is now losing ground to invading barred owls. There are a number of ethical dilemmas involved, Johnson said, noting that the decimation of old-growth forests by logging has caused the spotted owl's plight, but attempts to save it have resulted in proposals to kill off massive numbers of barred owls to protect it.

Johnson said that solution makes little sense, either from a moral standpoint or from a logical one, given that barred owls are likely to continue expanding their range westward indefinitely.

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